18 July 2013

The Road to Damascus - or Somewhere...

by Eve Fisher

Brian Thornton blogged a couple of weeks ago about the importance of both a strong plot and well-written characters.  Now I like certain characters straight up and traditional - Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, etc.  You learn more about them - Holmes' brother, Nero's daughter, Miss Marple's flirtation so deftly nipped in the bud by her mother - but the characters are there, fixed, sure and solid.  The down side is that they are done growing.  Luckily, I never tire of them as they are. 

But I also honor the authors who manage to transform their characters over time - who change and grow into something different than the person we first met.  They mature.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane both changed over the course of the 8 novels and 2 short stories Miss Sayers wrote.  The posh, flighty eccentric with a taste for flagrantly expensive, professionally beautiful women and old books became a man who wrestled - through his avocation - with his own PTSD and fell passionately in love with an intelligent woman whose main beauty was her voice.  And Harriet discovered self-esteem and freedom from her fear of a cage - both in marriage and in prison.

And then there are those who pull a 180, changing to their exact opposite to the point that it's unbelievable.  Except in real life, it happens all the time.

There are the obvious religious transformations, i.e., the roads to Damascus - Paul, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Abba Moses (old black guy, used to be a professional thief/murderer, became a hermit monk in the Wadi Natrun back 150 CE), etc. 

There are those who were knocked sideways by sorrow:

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Young Liszt, Brooding and Burning
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Liszt, Older and Mourning

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the famous composer and pianist, and a formidable womanizer, lost his son and one of his daughters (by the Countess d'Agoult) in 1859 and 1862, respectively.  (NOTE:  His surviving daughter, Cosima, a musician in her own right, would marry first Hans von Bulow- does anyone know if he's an ancestor of Claus? - and then Richard Wagner.) He became a Franciscan, received the tonsure, took the four minor orders porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and from then on was known as Abbe Liszt.  His whole life style calmed down considerably, and he spent much of his time, outside of playing, in solitude and prayer.  

File:Liane de Pougy postcard.jpgLiane de Pougy (1869-1950) - infamous courtesan of La Belle Epoque, she ran through men at a merry clip, accumulating massive wealth and dominating the gossip columns along with her co-courtesans, La Belle Otero, et al.  She married the Romanian Prince Georges Ghika in 1910 and settled down.  But her son by a much earlier marriage(?) was killed in WWI, and she became a Dominican tertiary, devoting herself to the Asylum of Saint Agnes, which took care of children with birth defects.  A recent French biography of her has the subtitle "Courtesan, princess, saint..."  The last might be extravagant - I haven't read the biography - but her life definitely took a different turn.

Speaking of courtesans and such, there are many throughout history who decided that repentance became them.  Among my favorites are the rivals Louise de La Valliere and Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan:

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Louise de la Valliere and children on left; Athenais de Montespan on right

Louise was the first "maitresse en titre" of Louis XIV, bearing him four children, which was part of the problem.  Childbirth changed her fragile beauty and she was succeeded by her supposed best friend, Athenais, who held on to Louis' attention through seven pregnancies and innumerable side affairs (Louis never met a woman he didn't want to have, and, as king, he had most of them).  She was finally ousted from the royal bed by the combination of a huge scandal involving multiple poisonings - next time's blog alert! - and her own governess for HER royal bastards, Madame de Maintenon, who was trying to use God to embarrass the king into morality.  Louise retired to a strict Caremlite convent early in the game.  (My favorite part is that the abbess of this extremely strict convent agreed that Louise had already done much of her penance in court).  Interestingly, and entirely out of character, in old age, the almost heathen Athenais also turned to strict penance.  Louis and Maintenon were morganatically married, and Louis remained reasonably faithful (by now he was forty-five which, at the time, was definitely middle-aged) and, as always, convinced that he was God's favorite son.  (Louis would NOT be on the list of people who change over time.) 

There are also those who, apparently, get a burr in their butt, such as the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620).

File:明神宗.jpgThe Wanli Emperor came to the Dragon throne near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  He was 9 years old, but had an excellent chief minister who trained him well before dying when Wanli was 19.  The next 20 years were a golden age for China - Wanli was a vigorous, active, hands-on emperor who stopped attempted invasions by the Mongols, an attempt by Japan (under Hideyoshi) to take Korea, and a major internal rebellion.  China prospered.  And then - one day he stopped doing anything.  No meetings, no memorials, no signing things, nothing.  Government came to an absolute standstill until the day he died.  Why?  We don't know.  There are two possibilities given by most historians:
(1) he decided to spend the rest of his reign building up his wealth and his tomb, thus he had no time for work.
(2) he was angry because he wanted one of his sons by his concubine, Lady Zheng, to be the next crown prince, and strict court etiquette demanded that the office be passed to his son by his Empress (the future Taiching Emperor), thus bringing government to a halt was his revenge. 
Personally, I don't know that either of these pass muster.  I mean, for a while, but for 20 years?  What would explain something like that?  Depression?  Addiction?  A combination of both?  In any case, with government at a standstill, China floundered, and the last few emperors couldn't get it back.  The Wanli Emperor's dereliction of duty was one of the major reasons why the Ming Dynasty fell 24 years later to the Manchus. 

And there are those who appear to really grow and CHANGE:

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Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose through the ranks to become a field commander.  And he was brilliant.  My favorite story is from the Battle of Parker's Cross Roads, 12/31/1862, when he was surprised by a Union brigade attacking his rear.  Trapped between two Union forces, he told his troops "Charge 'em both ways!" - and they did, and he won.  It seems like every Civil War historian is fascinated by this military genius who never attended West Point or took any military classes.  But what makes Forrest fascinating to me is that he was an antebellum slave trader and millionaire, who in the 1860's was one of the founders (perhaps the first Grand Wizard) of the KKK.  But barely ten years later he repudiated the Klan, and went around giving speeches advocating reconciliation between the races to both white and black organizations.  In one of them, before a black organization, he said, "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."  Yes, it sounds a little condescending to modern ears - but this is the sound of a man who had changed profoundly...

10 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Very interesting. I did not know about Forrest's change of heart. Another man who comes to mind is John Newton who captained slaving vessels on four trips to Africa before deciding he couldn't do that anymore. He became a minister, wrote "Amazing Grace," and 30 years after leaving the slave trade, became a leader of the abolitionist movement in the UK. (If you haven't seen the movie "Amazing Grace," partially about him, do.)

janice Law said...

Good column. The court of Versailles is just a gold mine for mystery ( and other ) writers because so many documents, letters and memoirs survive.

I published a novel years ago, All the King's Ladies, about Montespan and the Affair of the Poisons and it was fascinating to read the interrogation reports of the poisoners.

Eve Fisher said...

CORRECTION: Louis morganatically married Madame de Maintenon, not Montespan. Sorry about that.
I have read about Newton, and seen the movie "Amazing Grace" - and Janice, I too am fascinated by the whole Versailles world - full of intrigue and cut-throat behavior. And, as my next blog will say, their interrogation techniques are horrifying. Hmm. I might have to do a blog about medieval/Renaissance criminal justice procedures...

David Dean said...

Great article, Eve! I really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to the next.

Gilles de Rais, valiant lieutenant of Joan of Arc, provides another example of a transference to the dark side. After proving his mettle in the 100 Years War, he went home to his manor only to become, perhaps,the most prolific child murderer in history.

His interrogation/trial also makes a fascinating study of the medieval justice system.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wonderful post, Eve! Speaking of religious, how about St. Augustine ("God, give me chastity, but not yet" or words to that effect). Speaking of courtesans, how about Ninon de l'Enclos (famous centuries later for still having lovers at age 70--horrifyingly, my next birthday). I'd love to be able to tell her that in the 21st century, 70 is the new 39. :) And speaking of former slave traders turned Abolitionist, how about John Newton, the guy who wrote "Amazing Grace"?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Reading the comments backwards, I see Rob already thought of Newton.

Fran Rizer said...

Eve, great column--informative and entertaining at the same time.I'm looking forward to your next blogs about poison and interrogation methods.

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, enjoyed your article very much, even extracted some of the names for my own future short story research for one of my series. I would love to see a blog by you on the judicial system and interrogation techniques during the reign of the Sun King, le Roi Soleil. His motto being: "I am the state."
Anything on the judicial system of that time could very well end up in AHMM in my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving an orphan incompetent pickpocket.
Once again, nice blog.

Eve Fisher said...

I'm thinking the blog after next for Louis XIV's judicial system and interrogation methods - stay tuned!

Leigh Lundin said...

I very much enjoy Wimsey.

Another author who's made change her hallmark is Elizabeth Peters. As I was getting into one book and all sorts of things were going wrong, I found myself snarling that it had better turn out like I wanted it to.

History may have overly romanticized one of the great couples of all time, Abélard et Héloïse, and yet I prefer the romantic versions. Apparently the French do as well. They ultimately buried Abélard and Héloïse side by side.